Sketches of Rhum
By Neil Reid
From BFMC Journal 4, 1992
In July 1990 a group from the Braes o’ Fife gathered at Fort William and proceeded to Mallaig, where they caught the ferry to the Isle of Rhum and a memorable week of sunshine and exploration. Plenty new routes were climbed but, great though it was, no-one will remember the trip for the climbing alone.
Rhum [At the time of this trip Rhum was the accepted spelling. Now, of course, it is just Rum] is a nature reserve, and nature there was aplenty. Rhum also has a reputation for rain, but here its reputation was given the lie and (after the first day) a week of almost unbroken sunshine revealed the island in its full glory as one of the best scenic locations in Scotland – and that means in the world. So even amongst the seekers after fame, fortune and a photo in High, days were willingly spent bypassing the cliffs and wandering amongst Rhum’s small but spectacular hills, or simply strolling along the quiet shores of Loch Scresort.
Other than Kinloch itself, where the Post Office doubled (trebled?) as shop, off-licence and night club, the climbers enjoyed an enviable solitude, seldom meeting anyone outwith their own party. By the end of the week there was a very genuine reluctance to leave the island, and even to part from one-another once they had sailed back into the hustle and bustle of Mallaig.
What follows is not a blow by blow account of the trip, but a few scattered, personal memories which may give some impression of the sheer delight and variety of Rhum in the company of good friends.
The cast: John Mitchell, Anne Bain, Mary Dunlop, Jim Mitchell, Ewan Mitchell, Joe Duffin, Dougie Reid, Bill Hogg and Neil Reid.
Sitting at the top of Allival Slab taking in the rope as John climbed, there was a movement at the edge of my vision and I looked round to see a stag regarding me curiously from behind a rock barely 20 feet away. It gazed for a long, calm moment then, deciding I was of no great interest, disappeared back round the corner with as little fuss as it appeared.
We’d passed plenty of deer on the way there and only in winter or in the rut had I seen them so unconcerned by human presence, barely giving way as we climbed a long, boulder-strewn ramp in a rising traverse of the north-east side of Hallival. A low cloud-base gave us some initial doubt whether we’d reached the right cliffs but, just as we’d decided we were right enough, the grey blanket cleared, marking the start of almost a week of blue skies.
Spreading along the foot of the crags, we launched a three-pronged attack, with Anne, John and Ewan leading their respective ropes up three cracking routes, ranging from V Diff to VS. Ropes then reversed, we gathered at the foot of Allival Slab and led two lines to the top, both looking sensational to spectators but yielding easily at V Diff, if a little sparse on protection.
Coiling ropes at the top we were without doubt the finest, bravest bunch of explorers ever to sally forth onto rock … but that night in the bothy the harsh black and white realities of the higglety pigglety guide book [At this time the only climbing guide to Rum was Hamish Brown’s, with the order of the routes often defying apparent logic!] put paid to our exultation.
Anne’s route was the first to fall, relegated to the status of a variation on an existing climb.
Jim’s line on the slab was so good it had already been done; but since then the first 20 feet had fallen to the coire floor, so at least he could claim a new start.
The cruelest blow of all came with the sickening realization that Ewan no longer had to think up a name for his bold VS. He took the news with a commendable stoicism, but no-one could have remained unmoved when he suddenly remembered: "I’ve just sent a postcard to my pals saying I put up a new VS!"
There was a brief pause, then he announced with a flat determination: "Well, I’ll just have to do another one then."
And do you know? He did.
Rhum, nature reserve and home to all manner of exotic flora and fauna – so much so that even a bunch of climbers couldn’t fail to notice.
Read Hamish Brown’s guide for the long list of plants, animals and birds; or just go there and, knowing no names, revel in the abundance of life: flying, running, walking, crawling and simply sitting there looking pretty.
Even a walk through the Kinloch Woods and up into Coire Dubh provides a rich hour of contrast and beauty, with even the most insignificant corners springing delightful surprises.
And on the tops, beside the omnipresent deer, there is the novelty of seeing feral goats clattering over scree and rock with a speed that surprises and impresses, belying the impression of solidity given by their great, shaggy appearance.
The North Ridge of Askival is described as Moderate, yet has a wild exposure far in excess of its grade. Ewan and I are ahead, shouting surprise and delight at one-another as each seeming impasse yields so simply after all with massive holds, only to lead on to another ‘impossible’ step with startling drops on either side of what is at times a truly knife-edge ridge. When it widens again near the top we shun the obvious routes and seek out more interesting ways, reluctant to admit the end of a superb scramble.
On the summit we are spoilt for views, running round the top like children on Christmas morning not knowing which toy to play with, filled with an exhilarating joy: an aerial view of Hallival, beyond it that majestic Rhum view of the Skye Cuillin; scanning round there are the peaks of Knoydart, and Morar’s gleaming white sands; south again, precipitously down Glen Dibidil and over blue water to Eigg; round yet to Gillean, Ainshval, and sharp-topped Trollaval sloping down to Glen Harris and the western sea; then completing the circle to steep-ridged Barkeval, its honeycomb peridotite beckoning so temptingly to the climber.
Askival that day, bathed in scorching summer sunshine, with the sky stretching to blue infinity above, was a magical place to be and there was surely no finer mountain in the world.
We restrain impulses to go Sea Eagle hunting on forbidden Barkeval (Wild dreams of inviting the warden to a supper of roast Sea Eagle) but can hardly avoid the nesting burrows of the Manx Shearwater. Whole hillsides are honeycombed by these burrows, lush green grass at the mouth of each testifying to the hygienic housekeeping habits of the parents.
One day Mary is found with her arm and shoulder deep in a burrow but, just as we prepare to engage in a life or death tug-o-war with ravenous Shearwater chicks, she sees our alarm and pulls her arm out unhindered. With a sheepish grin she explains she was only seeing how deep they were. Deep enough.
On Askival we discover a colony of burrows all neatly numbered with white paint. We wonder whether this is an aid to disorientated but numerate parents, or if perhaps it is possible to send a letter to Mr and Mrs M. Shearwater, 43 Askival East, Rhum … and what one would say.
Squatting low and red at the head of the loch, obscenely desecrating the natural beauty? … Or set majestically amidst magnificent scenery, a remarkable monument to Edwardian splendour?
Kinloch Castle is both these: fascinating yet repulsive: a symbol of oppression visited on generations of islanders, and the material evidence of the ethic which has preserved the land’s integrity.
You cannot, it appears, visit Rhum without touring this ultimate example of ‘the big house’. I tried to avoid it but failed, enticing hints of the marvels within overcoming objections of principle.
And it must be admitted that it is fascinating: a house filled to overflowing with objects of exquisite beauty and craftsmanship, yet which only conveys an acquisitive greed unfettered by any notion of taste; built at incredible expense and ostentatiously displaying the most advanced technology of the day, yet eaten by damp and degradation unknown in many a house far older.
Kinloch Castle is a paradox: anachronistic, yet integral to the island, an unmissable treasure trove of wonders which leaves a bad taste in your mouth as you emerge from its gloom into the light of the real world where the deer runs and the eagle flies. And where there is a hill to climb tomorrow.
A day alone to Bloodstone Hill on the westernmost corner of the island. Follow the jeep track to Harris for a few miles through unremarkable moorland then break away at a bridge and climb wetly over a rise and up to a bealach where you are suddenly on the rim of a great amphitheatre, sweeping from the crumbling cliffs and pinnacles of Orval in a wide hill-girt ring to a narrow opening to the ocean.
Pleasure it is just to contour this vast bowl enclosing a volume of space so massive that one thinks of this as much as of the hills.
The last pull up to the summit of Bloodstone Hill is wet, the grassy top none too dry either, but the situation is pure pleasure. The western slopes, although grassy, plunge abruptly in a near vertical drop of over 1000 feet to the sea, and so breathtaking is this drop to tiny breakers trimming the shore with lace that it is hard to stand too long near the edge.
But a sheltered niche towards the north gives a perfect stance to doze in the sun or, more likely, to gaze long over the tide-tracked plain of the sea to precious Canna lying low in the water, now and then casting a glance over to the Alpine grandeur of the Cuillin of Skye, which have no finer viewpoint than from this small island.
Finally, sated with views which will last a lifetime, Bloodstone Hill becomes a lonely place for a man alone and there are many empty miles before Kinloch and home. So you are glad, a couple of miles yet from Rhum’s metropolis, to meet Dougie and Joe coming out the road, your first humans in many an hour. Then you meet John and Jim on the road and you are happy. It’s been a good day.
Perhaps for reasons totally altruistic, or perhaps with an eye to the next vacancy for an NCC warden for Rhum, John did his bit for conservation.
The rest of us had all spent time enjoying the antics of a crossbill which now and then dropped in on the edge of the dirt track opposite our door and would hop around tossing empty pine cones about with its remarkable crossed beak.
John had missed these displays but, coming back to the bothy alone one day he spied the bird and stopped in his tracks to watch it. Unfortunately it had also been spotted by a cat hiding beneath a trailer and harbouring motives considerably less innocent, if totally natural. Just as John saw the wee bird the cat pounced, grasping the tasty morsel in its sharp-clawed paws.
The shock was such that John involuntarily gasped "Oh no!", which in turn shocked the cat, until then so intent on its prey it had not noticed John’s arrival. It looked up, relaxing its grip, and the crossbill took its chance and flew shakily to the nearest tree, where it might have sworn never to drop a cone on a tourist again.
John delighted in telling this tale but didn’t realize he was being observed when, later, he tried to make up to the disgruntled cat. His failure was so complete that the observer retired discretely to save his blushes. Until now.
Arms tired from holding on out of balance for too long, frustrated, demoralized. Protection is good but all the options for upward progress seem exhausted. Even John, belaying below, seems to have lost interest and is chatting to Jim; the rope, unmoving for so long, is almost forgotten. Does he remember you’re up here running out of time?
Oh, there’s always the traverse out onto the face of the slab, but what’s the point in the climb then? There must be a way through the overhang. (Change grip once more, ease one arm at the expense of the other. How many more times before you no longer have the strength?)
What about that wee notch there, out on the edge? Get the right foot across … no, not quite … lay away on the right hand and … that’s it. That’s it! Now keep going – lay back, push up with that right foot, reach with the left hand for that niche – it must be a hold – it is – now pull – all on the one arm – pull pull pull never mind the pain pull pull pull just another inch see that edge get the knee up never mind style get the knee there – not quite – can’t pull any further … coming off! … Pull! – Knee! – There! Now up, get the other hand up, foot where the knee was and stand up, step across and up and … safe!
Heave in air, left arm useless but who cares now, still trembling from effort and adrenalin. Let the breathing slow now, lean your head on the rock, the nice, easy 30 feet of rock to finish; shuffle your feet more securely on this lovely, flat ledge, relax a little, shake the blood back into that aching arm. You’re up now. You’ve done it.
The best route on Rhum is Troll Corner. I know because I climbed it, and everyone else knows because I told them. And told them and told them.
But really they were all the best climbs that day: Ewan’s ‘Fugazi’ (The VS which rescued his standing with his pals.), with its impossible bridging moves (ask Jim) and overhanging mantelshelves; John’s aptly named ‘Pandora’s Box’ employing such a variety of techniques you could never get bored; his ‘Slab Direct’ such an obvious line and so enjoyable.
Each and every line we climbed that sunny day high on Hallival’s western face was a delightful exercise in exploration on rough, sound rock. And it was all thanks to the veteran’s eye for the easy option.
For that day we had been heading for the distant ridges of Askival, sweating under rucksacks which, no matter how we pruned and discarded, seemed ever to hold too much gear. Contouring low on Hallival’s west flank, John’s eye was drawn by an interesting-looking slab higher up, and although the band of rock which contained it seemed low and shattered we needed little persuasion to detour for a recce.
As we approached the slab and surrounding rock grew higher and, although the shattered appearance remained, a cursory inspection on arrival revealed the whole band to be a lot sounder than it looked, with no shortage of natural lines between 70 and 150 feet in length.
With the sun on our backs and unrivalled views for the belayers, all thoughts of Askival were forgotten as we spent a tremendous and exciting day, putting up no less than nine new routes between V Diff and VS. And this time they stayed new, with plenty more just waiting for the right day and the right climbers carrying too much weight.
Dinner’s past and pretty well settled, and those organised in these matters are sitting back with a relaxing can of beer. You drank your last can yesterday, so you give up the comfortable armchair you manoeuvred so cunningly to get and go upstairs to find some money. Downstairs again, past the comfortable warmth of the Raeburn and out into the weakening sunshine slanting through the trees. Cross the bridge over the peat-brown water of the burn (a dipper flashes from under the arch and darts upstream between green-fringed banks) and turn towards Loch Scresort, flat calm in the quiet of the evening, a gull flying over high against a clear sky.
On the shore, barely above the tide line, stands the old-fashioned telephone kiosk with buttons A and B and a nagging operator at the other end of the line on the mainland. Beside it is the Post Office and General Store which will sell you a single stock cube should you need one, or any kind of biscuit so long as it’s McVitie’s Chocolate Wholemeal. It’s too early yet for the local young bucks to be sitting on the counter drinking beer and chatting up the Postmistress’ daughter, so you have to wait a moment as she comes through from the house to serve you. (No bacon these last two days, but the ferry comes tomorrow.)
Tins in hand you dawdle all the way back to the bothy so as to enjoy all you can of the evening: the sea and the sky, Hallival thrust up on the southerly horizon reminding you of glorious days past, the quiet trees gently closing in on the houses as day recedes …
…"What about ‘Generation Gap’?" (Memories of Jim seconding: "How the hell am I meant to get my foot up on my shoulder?")
"That’s a great idea. Great name for a route. Fits perfectly."
But then Ewan, whose privilege it is to name the route, shows just how wide the generation gap is by calling it ‘Fugazi’, after an album no-one has heard of. The gap works both ways though, for he thinks Jim’s route ‘Grendel’ is named after another song by the same band, never having heard of Beowulf.
Back in the bothy, it seems, things are going in full swing. Anne, cigar in hand, is reading a book, but before long she’ll join the verbal gang-fight Dougie is just starting. In fact everyone will join in at some stage, save Ewan, who will lay aside his book of impossible climbs in Yosemite to sketch rock memories and both battles.
Meanwhile Dougie, masterful agitator, will allow a frenzy of outraged socialism to unleash itself, ask itself a few pertinent questions, then reaffirm its principles before, smiling beatifically, he will announce that perhaps he’ll have an early night.
After that you might carry on helping to solve the world’s ills, or perhaps inveigle John into another game of chess – after all, you have to win one of these days.
However it goes now, it’ll be a good night. But make the most of it, for the ferry comes tomorrow.